Analysis: What keeps Putin in power?

  • 17 Jan 2020

The Russian president’s enormous influence over the country’s destiny has forced comparisons between Putin and the former Tsars.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on screen as he delivers his annual state of the nation address to the Federal Assembly in Moscow, Russia January 15, 2020. ( Maxim Shemetov / Reuters )

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently demanded vast changes in the country’s governmental structure including major amendments to the constitution, giving rise to speculation in Western capitals that he wants to stay in power even after 2014 — maybe even for life — when his term is set to officially end. 

Right after Putin’s annual State of the Union speech, Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev and his government resigned. Three hours after the government’s resignation, Putin nominated Mikhail Mishustin, a relatively unknown figure, who leads the country’s tax office, to the post of the premiership. 

Putin has been in power for nearly two decades, shifting his role between president and prime minister since 2000, when he became the country’s president after a turbulent period in Russian history following the collapse of the superpower communist Soviet Union, the predecessor state of the Russian Federation. 

Putin forged powerful connections in Russia’s security apparatus during his sixteen years as a foreign intelligence officer with the KGB where he rose to the post of Lieutenant Colonel.

Many experts think that the country’s defence and security establishment, which refused to bow to Western political superiority and accept liberal democracy, helped him claim power after the former President Boris Yeltsin’s years in the 1990s, when Russia had been humiliated by Western powers in an unprecedented fashion.  

“Authoritarianism was inevitable for Russia because we were a failed state in 1991. There was no choice. Eventually, predictably, one group of elites connected with defence and security became more prominent and they saved the country at a cost,” says Sergei Karaganov, a former advisor to Putin and an influential political scientist, in a previous interview with TRT World.  

The most recent map of Russia and its neighbours.(TRTWorld)

In exchange, Putin awarded key positions to the country’s security establishment. 

“Upon Putin’s ascension to the presidency, the siloviki (Russian word for the country’s security establishment) obtained key positions in what Amy Knight, author of Orders to Kill: The Putin Regime and Political Murder, calls Russia’s ‘power ministries’ - the police and security agencies,” wrote Sean T. Crowley, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA). 

Is Putin an uncompromising leader? 

But at the same time, Putin, whom Westerners want to portray as an uncompromising dictator, has led Russia through a coalition of sorts, forming a difficult political alliance between technocrat liberals like his recently resigned Prime Minister Medvedev and anti-Western siloviki, which dominates the country’s security class. 

Both groups have various disagreements with each other ideologically and on economic policy,  and they are not the only groups who hold sway over the country’s political course. There are also other groups like the Muscovites, who do not have any tolerance for any kind of democracy, defending an imperial rule with an iron fist. 

After all, Putin’s Russia is a country, where autocratic leadership has been the norm since the time of the Tsars, when the infamous Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great led the state with an iron fist. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in St. Petersburg, Russia on Dec. 2, 2016. In the background is a painting depicting Russian tsar Peter the Great.(AP)

During the Soviet period, Joseph Stalin, a communist dictator, also equally or even more brutally than the Tsars, governed the state, killing millions and imprisoning hundreds of thousands of others who opposed his rule.  

In capitalist Russia, Putin appears to be a leader milder than his monarchical and communist predecessors, but he is still very autocratic in his conduct against internal dissent no matter whatever form it takes. 

In this May 5, 2018 file photo, Russian police carry opposition leader Alexei Navalny, center, from a demonstration against President Vladimir Putin in Pushkin Square in Moscow, Russia.(AP)

But like his predecessors, he is determined to make Russia great again. 

“Ever since, making Russia great again has become a new ideology for Putin. State propaganda started to spread the idea that Putin is the only one who can restore the greatness of Russia,” wrote Mikhail Zygar, a Russian journalist and writer who penned the book, All the Kremlin’s Men in 2015. 

How Putin sees himself

Right before the 2018 Russian presidential elections, the state-run TV channel Rossiya 1 broadcast a documentary about Valaam, a remote Russian monastery, which is a personal favourite of Putin. He led the restoration efforts of the monastery, which had been reduced to ruins in the Soviet period. 

Through the metaphor of Valaam, the documentary “conveyed the idea that Putin is a unique historical leader of Russia—able to unite fervent advocates of the Communist-era Soviet Union with those who dream of Russia’s pre-revolutionary empire, built on Orthodox Christianity,” according to Zygar.  

In this photo taken on May 3, 2017, Mikhail Korhunov paints the frames of his paintings, portraits of (from left): Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Russian czar Peter the Great, Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin, Soviet leader Josef Stalin, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Pyotr Stolypin, Russian prime minister from 1906 to 1911, at the top of Korhunov's house in the village of Severnaya Griva, about 130 kilometers (80 miles) east of Moscow, Russia.(AP)

In one of the episodes, Putin speaks about his understanding of Russian history, identifying the Orthodox Christianity with communism and saying that “the Bolsheviks, in fact, reproduced the traditional dogmas that dominated the Russian Orthodox Church for centuries,” Zygar recounted.  

“He (Putin) even compared the preserved corpse of (Vladimir) Lenin, (who was one of the co-founders and the first leader of the Soviet Union), which lies in a mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square, to the relics of the Orthodox saints, demonstrating that he managed to overcome the longstanding division,” Zygar added. 

The documentary implied that Putin is pretty much the ultimate synthesis and materialisation of Russsian history. As a result, “Without Putin, there is no Russia,” in the words of Vyacheslav Volodin, one of Putin’s former aides. 

Demonstrators carry posters depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin during a massive protest rally in St.Petersburg, Russia on May 5, 2018. The sign on the poster reads: 'He is not a Tzar for us'.(AP)

Under Putin’s leadership, while Russia has not reached the highs of its old superpower era, it has been rallied to a point where the country has effectively challenged American leadership from Syria to Ukraine and Venezuela, a country Washington has long thought is located in its backyard. This is not just to Putin’s credit of course, as the US has itself withdrawn its historically prominent role from some of these spheres in recent years under both the Barack Obama and Donald Trump administration. 

While the country’s economy suffers, Moscow has still been able to produce the most technologically developed hypersonic weapons, threatening both NATO and Europe.  

Last month, a proud Putin revealed the country’s recent military advances, claiming that "not a single country possesses hypersonic weapons, let alone continental-range hypersonic weapons," which can not be detected by even American missile defence systems. 

What Putin wants next

After his landmark speech on the system change proposition, an elusive Putin appears to leave everyone guessing about his next moves. 

“Astonishing observers, Putin proposed on Wednesday the most dramatic changes to Russia's constitution since 1993,” wrote Daniel Treisman, a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles and an editor of the book, The New Autocracy: Information, Politics, and Policy in Putin's Russia.

According to Putin's new plan, which he promised will be voted on in a referendum, the prime minister and the cabinet should be chosen not by the president as is the case now, but rather the parliament, making Russia’s semi-presidential system resemble a parliamentary system more than a presidential system.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, listens to Tax Service chief Mikhail Mishustin during their meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia on Jan. 15, 2020. Putin has named Mishustin as Russia's new prime minister on Jan. 15.(AP)

“(T)he current system dominated by an overwhelmingly powerful presidency would be replaced by one with more checks and balances, division of powers, and decentralization. These radical changes appear to signal that Putin is serious about stepping down from the presidency,” Treisman observed

But it does not mean Putin gives up power. Instead, through his new scheme, he might have a clever plan to stay in power. 

“Putin, who in office has been no friend of democracy, now seems intent on leaving a more democratic order to his successor. The paradox is that accountable governments defend the powerful more reliably than authoritarian ones,” the professor viewed. 

“In a dictatorship, all but the dictator -- and even the dictator, at times -- are vulnerable. By contrast, checks and balances leave most powerful groups with some points of leverage,” he added. 

Others also agree with Treisman. 

“It’s not clear what role he will play, what will his status be. The only thing which is clear is that he will keep his role as the No. 1 person,” said Aleksei Chesnakov, a political analyst, who advised the Kremlin in the past. 

The 67-year old Putin does also not seem to be fatigued. 

“There is a misconception that Putin is tired, needs rest and wants to live the life of a billionaire. But Putin is far from being tired. He is interested in everything and digs into every matter, paying attention to all the details. This is his lifestyle, this is who he is,” said a former minister, who wants to stay anonymous, but has personal access to the president.  

“He can’t imagine life without power,” the former minister concluded.